by Josh Turknett, MD
Here’s a fact of banjo that you should find reassuring: everybody sucks at first.
Nobody is born knowing how to play the banjo. Nor is the banjo-learning algorithm baked into our brain’s developmental program.
Nope. We must use our general purpose intelligence to build our banjo picking circuitry from scratch.
The wondrous thing about this is that it’s possible to do so at all. Such is the gift of a plastic, malleable, customizable brain.
This means, as any of you reading this series knows well by now, innate ability is not the thing that matters. Anyone is capable of building a musical brain.
But building it, and building it well, is where the challenge lies. It’s not those who are born with musical brains that become master musicians, it’s those who are good at building them.
And arguably the single greatest challenge, the primary obstacle that weeds out more aspiring banjoists than anything else, is the “Gap of Suck.”
Whether you make it across the Gap of Suck, or get lost in its vacuum forever, makes all the difference.
What is the “Gap of Suck?”
The “Gap of Suck,” described by Kathy Sierra in her book Badass, is that time in the development of any skill, from sports, to writing fiction, to acting, to woodworking, to drawing, to knitting, to playing a musical instrument of any kind, when you’re just no good. When you’re putting in effort in practicing, but have little to nothing to show for it (or, at least is seems that way).
The early stages in learning anything are mixed bag. On the one hand, it is the time of greatest growth – relatively speaking, there’s never another time in your journey where you’ll be learning more.
At the neuronal level, this early growth requires massive restructuring in the brain. And that restructuring takes time.
Meanwhile, while all that massive brain rewiring is happening, you still suck. In fact, you may have no awareness that any progress is happening at all.
From your perspective, you just aren’t any good, and you want real results faster than they’re coming.
And nobody enjoys this. It’s perhaps doubly hard in this information age of ours. In olden times, may have only come across one or two really great players in a lifetime.
Now we can watch scores of them at the touch of a screen.
Watching a masterful banjo player can (and should) serve as a source of inspiration, and fuel our desire to get better. But it can also remind us how far we’ve yet to go. Or, in other words, it can serve as a poignant, omnipresent reminder of just how much we suck.
For many, the Gap of Suck will pose the greatest existential threat to their life as a banjo player. So anything you can do to improve your odds of making it across it is crucial.
Fortunately, there’s a large body of knowledge on how you can do just that – knowledge acquired from both the study of experts and of the neurobiology of learning.
Here are 5 key strategies for making it across the Gap of Suck, all of which are common habits of the very top performers in multiple domains:
1. Break it down.
Break the learning process into the smallest possible bits you can practice. Time and again, this has been shown to be essential to learning anything successfully, the reasons for which we’ve covered in prior episodes of the Laws of Brainjo.
Beyond being the best way to build efficient and effective neural sub-circuits, there are also tremendous psychological advantages to breaking big goals into bite-sized bits:
In 1985, mountain climber Joe Simpson found himself found himself alone in the Peruvian Andes after having plummeted 150 feet into a deep crevasse. His climbing partner thought him dead. Between the injuries he’d sustained and the bitter cold, making the 5 mile trek back to base camp – a trek that included crossing a glacier – seemed implausible to any rational mind.
Yet, for the next three days, with frostbitten fingers and a broken leg, Simpson hobbled onwards. Realizing that focusing on how far he had left to go would only serve to reinforce the terrible odds he faced, he needed to break it down into goals that didn’t seem so insurmountable. So he took his one big goal – making it to base camp – and broke it down into a multitude of smaller goals that he tried to achieve in 20 minutes. Can I crawl to the next boulder in 20 minutes? Make it to that next bend? And so on.
“I started to look at things and think, ‘If I can get to that crevasse over there in 20 minutes, that’s what I’m going to do.’ … And it became obsessive. I don’t know why I did it. I think I knew the big picture of what was happening to me, and what I had to do was so big, I couldn’t deal with it.”
– Joe Simpson, from “Touching the Void”
Struggling to remember how to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown in its entirety? Then just try to remember the first measure. Or two measures.
Not only is dividing and conquering the most effective approach to learning, but it’s also the one that comes with most rewards. The single greatest motivating factor is progress, and the more opportunities you create for demonstrating progress, the more likely you are to soldier on.
Who knows, it might even save your life one day.
RELATED: Breaking things down into the smallest learnable bits, AND learning those bits in the right sequence, is one of the primary foundations of the Brainjo Method. Watch the video below to learn more about how this is applied to learning the banjo (click here to learn more about the Brainjo course for fingerstyle banjo):
2. Embrace the struggle.
It’s natural to equate “struggle” with “pain,” and natural then to see your early struggles as painful. A bitter pill you must swallow. A necessary evil.
Another option is to reconfigure your thoughts about the struggle entirely.
Think for a moment all the things that you know how to do without giving them a second thought – walking, talking, using a fork, writing your name, and so on.
Do you revel in your ability to do these things, or do you think them ordinary? I imagine it’s the latter.
And why don’t you think anything of them? Because you didn’t have to work for them (or, more accurately, you no longer remember how you once did struggle to learn those things).
If you don’t have to expend much effort to get somewhere, then getting there isn’t nearly as gratifying. It’s the struggle to get there that gives our ultimate success its meaning.
The very best performers learn to look forward to the struggle. Struggle doesn’t equate to pain. Struggle equates to progress.
3. Set process-oriented goals.
Sure, you could set a goal like “I want to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown, the way Earl played it, at 120 bpm in 6 months.”
That seems reasonable enough. But there’s a problem with an outcome-oriented goal like that.
It depends on some factors that you can’t influence. There’s no way to predict whether certain goals are within the realm of feasibility.
Why would this be a problem? Because if you do everything right in your effort to achieve that goal but fall short, you’ll come away feeling discouraged.
On the other hand, the variable you can influence is your process. You can control whether or not you achieve a process-oriented goal, such as “I’m going to practice for 20 minutes every evening,” or “I’m going to make sure each sub-skill is automatic before moving on to the next one.” These factors do influence the final outcome, and whether you adhere to them is entirely within your control.
The top performers determine the process that’s most likely to lead to the outcome they desire, and then commit to following the process itself.
4. Don’t play the comparison game (unless it’s to yourself).
As mentioned, we live in unprecedented times, with the ability to watch scores of gifted banjoists at the click of a mouse. And it’s human nature to compare ourselves to others and see how we stack up.
Avoid that trap, because nothing good ever comes from it.
When you’re in the Gap of Suck, almost everyone is better than you. It’s just statistics. But, remember 2 things:
- Everyone had to cross the Gap of Suck.
- No matter how “good” you get, there will always be those you look up to.
If you get in the habit of playing the comparison game, then get used to a life of disappointment. Because no matter how good you become, you will never run short of players to compare yourself unfavorably to.
The flip side of these unprecedented times is it also means we have countless sources of inspiration. Those same players that you could use as a source of disappointment can instead be used as inspiration. They show you what’s possible if you stick with this banjo thing, if you make it across the Gap of Suck.
Remember, there is no good or bad, only where you are on the Timeline of Mastery. Those players who are further along give you a glimpse of your future.
5. Look backwards, not forwards.
We humans adapt quickly to the new status quo. All in all, it serves us well. But that means it can be easy to forget how far we’ve come.
As I mentioned earlier, there is not good or bad, only where you are on the Timeline. At any moment in time, there’s what’s ahead of you, and what’s behind you.
Combine our tendency to always look forwards towards where we’d like to be, rather than backwards at where we’ve come from, with how rapidly we adapt to any new normal, and it’s easy to convince ourselves that we’re not making progress.
Remember that every micro skill you’ve learned on the banjo, from picking the 1st string cleanly with your middle finger, to forming your first partial D chord, once felt really hard. And, regardless of where you are, there are almost certainly players who’d like to trade places with you. To them, you are their future.
When assessing progress, the proper metric is not how far you have left go (which is infinite), but how far you have come.
Talk to almost any expert musician and they’ll tell you that there will always be more that you’d like to do, that this journey never ends, and that every position on the timeline of learning is relative. There is no finish line, only this moment in time, framed by where you’ve been, and where you’re going.